Showcase Presents the Flash volume 4


By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Frank Robbins, Carmine Infantino, Ross Andru & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-3679-3 (TPB)

In the anniversary year of Comics’ Silver Age, it’s a true shame that so much superb material remains out of reach of nostalgia-afflicted fans or any young neophyte looking for a vintage treat.

At least the tales gathered in this old tome – spanning the close of the Silver Age and start of the Bronze Age – are available, but only in ludicrously expensive hardback Omnibus editions, rather than paperback or digital collections. Boo to you publishers, and here’s a cheap and cheerful recommendation to track down an old monochrome masterpiece stuffed with crazy fun and thrills…

Barry Allen was the second speedster to carry the name of The Flash, and his debut was the Big Bang which finally triggered the gleaming era we’re celebrating here. He arrived after a succession of abortive original attempts such as Captain Flash, The Avenger, Strongman (in 1954-1955) and remnant revivals (Stuntman in 1954 and Marvel’s “Big Three”, The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner & Captain America during 1953-1955).

Although none of those restored the failed fortunes of masked mystery-men, they had presumably piqued readers’ consciousness, even at conservative National/DC. Thus, the revived human rocket wasn’t quite the innovation he seemed: alien crusader The Martian Manhunter had already cracked open the company floodgates with his low-key launch in Detective Comics #225 (November 1955).

However, in terms of creative quality, originality and sheer style Flash was an irresistible spark, and after his landmark first appearance in Showcase #4 (October 1956) the series became a benchmark by which every successive launch or reboot across the industry was measured.

Police Scientist (CSI today) Barry Allen was transformed by an accidental lightning strike and chemical bath into a human thunderbolt of unparalleled velocity and ingenuity. Yet with characteristic indolence the new Fastest Man Alive took 3 more try-out issues and almost as many years to win his own title. When he finally stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 (February-March 1959), he never looked back…

The comics business back then was a faddish, slavishly trend-beset world, however, and following a manic boom for superhero tales prompted by the Batman TV show, fickle global consciousness moved on to a fixation with supernatural themes and merely mortal tales, triggering a huge revival of spooky films, shows, books and periodicals. With horror on the rise again, many superhero titles faced cancellation, and even the most revered and popular were threatened. It was time to adapt or die…

At the time this fourth collection of his own hard-won title begins, the Vizier of Velocity was still an undisputed icon of the apparently unstoppable Superhero meme and mighty pillar of the costumed establishment, but dark days and changing fashions were about to threaten his long run at the top…

Reprinting transitional issues #162-184 (June 1966-December 1968), this compilation shows how Flash had set into a cosy pattern of two short tales per issue, leavened with semi-regular book-length thrillers; always written by regular scripters John Broome or Gardner F. Fox and illustrated by Carmine Infantino (with inker Joe Giella). That comfortable format was about to radically change.

Flash #162 featured Fox-penned sci-fi shocker ‘Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?’, in which an apparently bewitched fairground attraction opens the doors into an invasion-mystery millions of years old whilst stretching the Scarlet Speedster’s powers and imagination to the limit…

The next issue offered a brace of tales by globe-trotting author Broome, opening with ‘The Flash Stakes his Life – On – You!’, taking an old philosophical adage to its illogical but highly entertaining extreme as criminal scientist Ben Haddonuses his gadgets to make the residents of Central City forget their champion ever existed. That has the incredible effect of making the Flash fade away, if not for the utter devotion of one hero-worshipping little girl…

By contrast, ‘The Day Magic Exposed Flash’s Secret Identity!’ features a sharp duel with a dastardly villain as approbation-hungry evil illusionist Abra Kadabra breaks future jail and trades bodies with the 64th century cop sent to bring back to face justice, leaving the Speedster with an impossible choice to make…

Issue #164 offered another pair of fast fables. ‘Flash – Vandal of Central City!’ (Broome), sees the hero losing control of his speed and destroying property every time he runs. Little does he know old enemy Pied Piper was back in town… Kid Flash then solo-stars in Fox’s ‘The Boy Who Lost Touch with the World!’ as Wally West’s nerdy new friend suddenly becomes periodically, uncontrollably intangible…

With Flash #165’s ‘One Bridegroom too Many!’ Broome, Infantino & Giella made a huge advance in character development as Barry finally weds long-time fiancée Iris West. This shocking saga sees the hero’s sinister antithesis Professor Zoom, the Reverse-Flash attempt to replace him at the altar in a fast-paced, utterly beguiling yarn which also posed a seemingly insoluble quandary for the new groom…

Should the nervous newlywed reveal his secret identity to Iris – who has no idea she’s marrying a superhero – or say nothing, maintaining the biggest lie between them and pray she never, ever finds out? Every married man already knows the answer* but for us secretive little kids reading this the first time around, that question was an impossible, imponderable quandary…

Building soap opera tension by fudging the issue like a national government, #166 carried on as usual with Broome’s delicious comedy ‘The Last Stand of the Three-Time Losers!’ wherein a cheesy bunch of no-hoper thieves accidentally discover an unlikely exploitable weakness in Flash’s powers and psyche, before the Monarch of Motion becomes a ‘Tempting Target of the Temperature Twins!’ after spraining his ankle just as Heat Wave and Captain Cold renew their frenemy rivalry…

With #167, Sid Greene became series’ inker, kicking off his run with a light-hearted but accidentally controversial Fox/Infantino tale that utterly incensed the devoted readership. ‘The Real Origin of The Flash! introduced Heavenly Helpmate – and Woody Allen look-alike – Mopee who had long ago been ordered to create the accident which transformed a deserving human into the Fastest Man Alive.

Typically, Mopee had cocked-up and was now back on Earth to rectify his mistake. It takes all Flash’s skill, ingenuity and patience to regain his powers. The story is a delightfully offbeat hoot, but continuity-conscious fans dubbed it apocryphal and heretical ever since…

Less contentious was Fox’s back-up yarn ‘The Hypnotic Super-Speedster!’ allowing Kid Flash an opportunity to bust up a gang of thieves, prank a theatrical mesmerist and give a chubby school chum the athletic thrill of a lifetime.

Broome then produced for #168 a puzzling full-length thriller in which the Guardians of the Universe sought out the Flash and declared ‘One of our Green Lanterns is Missing!’ Even as the Scarlet Speedster hunts for his missing best buddy, he is constantly distracted by a gang of third-rate thugs who have somehow acquired futuristic super weapons…

Flash #169 was an all-reprint 80-Page Giant represented here by its stunning cover and an illuminating ‘How I Draw the Flash’ feature by Infantino, followed by a full-length Fox thriller in #170. ‘The See-Nothing Spells of Abra Kadabra!’sees the Vizier of Velocity hexed by the cunning conjuror and unable to detect the villain’s actions or presence. Sadly for the sinister spellbinder, Flash has help from visiting Earth-2 predecessor Jay Garrick and Justice Society of America pals Doctors Fate and Mid-Nite

‘Here Lies The Flash – Dead and Unburied’ (Fox, Infantino & Greene) pits the restored speedster against Justice League foe Doctor Light, attempting to pick off his assembled enemies one at a time, whilst #172 offers a brace of Broome blockbusters beginning with Grodd Puts the Squeeze on Flash!’, in which the super-simian blackmails his nippy nemesis into (briefly) busting him out of a Gorilla City cell. Following up, ‘The Machine-Made Robbery!’ saw the return of that most absent-minded of Professors Ira West. Luckily, son-in-law Barry is around to foil a perfidious plot by cunning criminals. The genius’ new super-computer is public knowledge, and the crooks – intent on designing a perfect crime – want to hire the device,

Issue #173 featured a titanic team-up as Barry, Wally West and Jay Garrick were separately shanghaied to another galaxy as putative prey of alien hunter Golden Man in ‘Doomward Flight of the Flashes!’ However, Broome’s stunning script slowly reveals layers of intrigue as the Andromedan super-safari masks a far more arcane need for the three speedy pawns…

In 1967, Infantino became Art Director and Publisher of National/DC and, although he still designed the covers, Flash #174 was his final full-pencilling job. He departed in stunning style with Broome’s ‘Stupendous Triumph of the Six Super-Villains!’ wherein Mirror Master Sam Scudder discovers a fantastic looking-glass world where the Scarlet Speedster is a hardened criminal constantly defeated by a disgusting do-gooder reflecting champion.

Stealing the heroic Mirror Master’s secret super-weapon, Scudder calls in fellow Rogues Pied Piper, Heat Wave, Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang and The Top to share their foe’s final downfall, but they aren’t ready for the last-minute interference of the other, evil, Barry Allen…

When Infantino left, most fans were convinced the Flash was ruined. His replacements were highly controversial and suffered most unfairly in unjust comparisons – and I count myself among their biggest detractors at the time – but in intervening years I’ve learned to appreciate the superb quality of their work.

However, back in a comics era with no invasive, pervasive support media, Flash #175 (December 1967) was huge shock. With absolutely no warning, ‘The Race to the End of the Universe!’ proclaimed E. Nelson Bridwell as author and introduced Wonder Woman art-team Ross Andru & Mike Esposito as illustrators.

Moreover, the story was another big departure. DC Editors in the 1960s had generally avoided such questions as which hero was strongest/fastest/best for fear of upsetting some portion of their tenuous and almost-certainly temporary fan-base, but as the superhero boom slowed and upstart Marvel Comics began to make genuine inroads into their market, the notion of a definitive race between the almighty Man of Steel and the “Fastest Man Alive” had become an inevitable, increasingly enticing and sales-worthy proposition.

After a deliberately inconclusive first race around the world – for charity – (‘Superman’s Race with the Flash’ in Superman #199 (August 1967)), the stakes were astronomically raised in the inevitable rematch in Flash #175.

The tale itself sees the friendly rivals compelled to speed across the cosmos because ruthless alien gamblers Rokk and Sorban threaten to eradicate Central City and Metropolis unless the pair categorically settle who is fastest. Bridwell adds an ingenious sting in the tale and logically highlights two classic Flash Rogues, whilst Andru & Esposito deliver a sterling illustration job in this yarn – but once again the actual winning is deliberately fudged.

Broome produced a few more stories before moving on and #176 features two of his best. ‘Death Stalks the Flash!’tapped into the upsurge in spooky shenanigans when Iris contracts a deadly fever and her hyper-fast hubby runs right into her delirious dreams to destroy the nightmarish Grim Reaper, after which ‘Professor West – Lost Strayed or Stolen?’delightfully inverts all the old absent-minded gags. Barry’s Father-in-Law successfully undergoes a memory-enhancing process but still manages to get inadvertently involved with murderous felons…

Fox then scripted one of the daftest yet most memorable of Flash thrillers in #177 as The Trickster invents a brain-enlarging ray that turns his arch-foe into ‘The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!’, after which #178’s cover follows – another all-reprint 80-Page Giant…

Written by newcomer Cary Bates and Gardner Fox, Flash #179 (May 1968) was another landmark. The prologue ‘Test your Flash I.Q.’ and main event ‘The Flash – Fact or Fiction?’ extends the multiple Earths concept to its logical conclusion by trapping the Monarch of Motion in “our” Reality, where the Sultan of Speed is just a comic character! Simultaneously offering an alien monster mystery, this rollercoaster riot was a superb introduction for Bates, who eventually became regular writer and the longest serving creator of the legend of Barry Allen.

First though, jobbing cartoonist Frank Robbins added Flash to his credits, scripting an almost painfully tongue-in-cheek oriental spoof accessing everything from Kurosawa to You Only Live Twice to his own Johnny Hazard newspaper strip.

In #180, Barry and Iris visit friends in Japan and are soon embroiled in a deadly scheme by fugitive war criminal Baron Katana to turn the clock back and restore feudal control over Nippon using ‘The Flying Samurai’. The sinister plot unravels after only the most strenuous efforts of the newlyweds in all-action conclusion ‘The Attack of the Samuroids!’

Broome’s last hurrahs was in #182, with the return of Abra Kadabra whose futuristic legerdemain and envy of genuine stage magicians compel him to turn the speedster intoThe Thief Who Stole all the Money in Central City!’ whilst ‘The Flash’s Super-Speed Phobia!’ sees an unlikely accident inflict a devastating – if temporary – psychological disability on the fleet thief-taker.

The tone of the stories was changing. Aliens and super science took a back-seat to more human-scaled dramas. Robbins scripted the last two tales here, beginning with a devilishly deceptive case of bluff and double-bluff as Barry Allen becomes ‘The Flash’s Dead Ringer!’ in a convoluted attempt to convince crime-boss the Frog that the police scientist isn’t also the Fastest Man Alive, before proving that he too was adept at high-concept fabulism in #184, when a freak time-travel accident traps Flash millennia in the future after accidentally becoming the apparent ‘Executioner of Central City!’

These tales first appeared at a moment when superhero comics almost disappeared for the second time in a generation, and perfectly show the Scarlet Speedster’s ability to adapt to changing fashions in ways many of his four-colour contemporaries simply could not. Crucial as they are to the development of modern comics, however, it is the fact that they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised thrillers which still amuse, amaze and enthral new readers and old lags alike. This compendium is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of graphic narrative.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

* In case you’re not married, or not a man, the answer is: Fake your own death and move to Bolivia. And if you find a partner there, always tell them everything before they ask or find out.

Extra credit answer – also try not to be a dick.

Showcase Presents Wonder Woman volume 1


By Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1373-2 (TPB)

Until DC finally get around to republishing and digitally releasing their vast untapped comic treasures, I’m reduced to recommending some of their superb past printed glories whenever I feel like celebrating a key anniversary of the world’s preeminent female superhero who first caught the public’s attention in October 8 decades ago…

Wonder Woman was created by polygraph pioneer William Moulton Marston – apparently at the behest of his remarkable wife Elizabeth and their life partner Olive Byrne. The vast majority of the outlandish adventures were limned by classical illustrator by Harry G. Peter. She debuted in All Star Comics #8 (cover-dated December 1941) before gaining her own series and the cover-spot in new anthology title Sensation Comics a month later. She was an instant hit, and won her own eponymous title in late Spring of that year (Summer 1942).

Using the nom de plume Charles Moulton, Marston & Co scripted all the Amazing Amazon’s many and fabulous exploits until his death in 1947, whereupon Robert Kanigher took over the writer’s role. The venerable H.G. Peter continued until his own death in 1958. Wonder Woman #97 – in April of that year – was his last hurrah and the discrete end of an era.

This first cheap and cheerful monochrome Showcase collection covers what came next: specifically issues #98-117, spanning May 1958-October 1960.

With the notable exception of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and inoffensive back-up B-listers Aquaman and Green Arrow (plus – arguably – Johnny Quick, who held on until December 1954 and cowboy crimebuster Vigilante who finally bit the dust a month earlier), costumed heroes died out at the beginning of the 1950s, replaced by a plethora of merely mortal champions and a welter of anthologised genre titles.

When after almost no time at all, Showcase #4 rekindled the readership’s imagination and zest for masked mystery-men with a new iteration of The Flash in 1956, the fanciful floodgates opened wide once more. As well as re-imagining Golden Age stalwarts such as Green Lantern, The Atom and Hawkman, National/DC consequently updated all its hoary survivors such as the aforementioned Emerald Archer and Sea King. Also included in that revitalising agenda were the company’s High Trinity: Man of Steel, Caped Crusader and the ever-resilient Princess of Power…

Artists Ross Andru & Mike Esposito had debuted as cover artists 3 issues earlier, but with opening inclusion Wonder Woman #98 they took over the entire comic book as Robert Kanigher reinvented much of the old mythology and even tinkered with her origins in ‘The Million Dollar Penny!’ when goddess Athena visits an island of super-scientific immortal women, informing Queen Hippolyta that she must send an emissary and champion of justice to crime-ridden “Man’s World.”

Declaring an open competition for the job, the queen isn’t surprised when her daughter Diana wins and is given the task of turning a penny into a million dollars in a day – all profits going to children’s charities, of course…

Just as the new Wonder Woman begins her coin chore, American airman Steve Trevor bails out of his malfunctioning jet high above the magically hidden isle, unaware that should any male set foot on Amazon soil the immortals would lose all their powers. Promptly thwarting impending disaster, Diana and Steve team up to accomplish her task, encountering along the way ‘The Undersea Menace’ before building ‘The Impossible Bridge!’

Issue #99 opened in similar bombastic fashion with ‘Stampede of the Comets!’ as Trevor is lost undertaking a pioneering space mission and Wonder Woman goes to his rescue thanks to incredible Amazon engineering ingenuity. After foiling an alien attack against Earth, the reunited lovers return in time for the introduction of the Hellenic Heroine’s new covert identity as Air Force Intelligence Lieutenant Diana Prince in ‘Top Secret!’ – beginning a decade of tales with Steve perpetually attempting to uncover her identity and make the most powerful woman on Earth his blushing bride, whilst his bespectacled, glorified secretary stands unnoticed, exasperated and ignored right beside – or slightly behind – him…

The 100th issue was a spectacular battle saga commencing with ‘The Challenge of Dimension X!’ and an alternate Earth Wonder Woman competing with the Amazing Amazon for sole rights to the title: all culminating with a deciding bout in ‘The Forest of Giants!’, whilst ‘Wonder Woman’s 100th Anniversary!’ deals with the impossibility of capturing the far-too-fast and furious Amazon’s exploits on film for Paradise Island’s archives…

‘The Undersea Trap!’ opened #101, with Steve tricking his “Angel” into agreeing to marry him if she has to rescue him three times in 24 hours (just chalk it up to simpler times, or you’ll pop a blood vessel, OK?) after which the odd couple are trapped by a temporal tyrant in ‘The Fun House of Time!’

Steve’s affection and wits are tested by an alien giant in ‘The Three Faces of Wonder Woman’ when he’s forced to pick out his true love from a trio of identical duplicates to save the world in #102, before ‘The Wonder Woman Album’ returns to the previously explored “impossible-to-photograph” theme in #103, but devotes most space to sinister thriller ‘The Box of Three Dooms!’ wherein the murderous Gadget Maker attempts to destroy the Amazon with a booby-trapped gift.

‘Trial By Fire’ pits Diana Prince against a host of deadly traps only Wonder Woman could survive after which ‘Key to Deception!’ closes #104 by reintroducing Golden Age villain the Duke of Deception as a militaristic Martian marauder in a gripping interplanetary caper.

Issue #105 debuted Wonder Girl in the ‘Secret Origin of Wonder Woman’, revealing how centuries ago the gods and goddesses of Olympus bestowed unique powers on the daughter of Queen Hippolyta and how – as a mere teenager – the indomitable Diana brought the Amazons to Paradise Island. Continuity – let alone consistency and rationality – were never as important to Kanigher as strong story or breathtaking visuals, and this eclectic odyssey is a great yarn that simply annoyed the heck out of a lot of fans… but not as much as the junior Amazon would in years to come…

Second feature ‘Eagle of Space’ is a more traditional tale of predatory space Pterodactyls and a dinosaur planet where Steve and Diana lend a civilising hand to the indigenous caveman population.

‘The Human Charm Bracelet!’ in #106 sees Wonder Woman battling an unbeatable extraterrestrial giant who wants Earth for his plaything, and her younger self encounters a chameleonic lass in ‘The Invisible Wonder Girl!’

The high fantasy adventures of the junior heroine clearly caught somebody’s fancy as they started coming thick and fast: ‘Wonder Woman – Amazon Teen-Ager!’ opened #107 as the youngster finds a romantic interest in merboy Ronno, undergoing a quest to win herself a superhero costume, whilst her adult self is relegated to a back-up battle against ‘Gunslingers of Space!’

‘Wanted… Wonder Woman!’ features Flying Saucer aliens framing our heroine for heinous crimes as a precursor to a planetary invasion and ‘The Stamps of Doom!’ offers a plot by another murderous inventor to kill the Princess in #108, before the next issue steps back in time to feature ‘Wonder Girl in Giant Land’ with the nubile neophyte easily overcoming ambush by colossal aliens. Her mature self is represented by ‘The Million Dollar Pigeon!’ wherein gangsters think they’ve found a foolproof method of removing the Amazing Amazon from their lives…

Wonder Woman #110 was a full-length saga with the indomitable warrior maid searching Earth for a missing alien princess in ‘The Bridge of Crocodiles!’ If the wanderer can’t be found, her concerned family intend laying waste the entire planet…

In #111, ‘The Robot Wonder Woman’ commissioned by gangsters provides no competition for the genuine article, whilst ‘Battle of the Mermen!’ sees Wonder Girl drawn into a sub-sea rumble between competing gangs of teenaged fish-boys…

The youthful incarnation led off the next issue. ‘Wonder Girl in the Chest of Monsters!’ takes the concept to unparalleled heights of absurdity as, in contemporary times, a heroic girl is rewarded with three Amazon wishes and travels back in time for an adventure with Wonder Woman’s younger self, whilst #113 return to relatively straight action with ‘The Invasion of the Sphinx Creatures!’ with the Adult Amazon battling the ancient weapons of a resurrected Pharoah-Queen, before ‘Wonder Girl’s Birthday Party!’ recounts how each anniversary event seems to coincide with geological disaster, mythological menace or uncanny event…

Aliens once more attack in #114’s ‘The Monster Express!’, turning parade balloons into ravening monsters until Diana and Steve intercede, after which ‘Wonder Girl’s Robot Playmate!’ demonstrate how hard it is growing up special…

Old enemy Angle Man returns revamped for the Silver Age in #115’s ‘Graveyard of Monster Ships!’ whilst ‘Mer-Boy’s Undersea Party!’ proves that above or below the waves Wonder Girls just don’t want to have fun, whilst in #116 both Ronno and Young Diana prove capable of serious heroism in ‘The Cave of Secret Creatures!’, before the Adult Amazon finally stops a millennial menace to mankind in ‘The Time -Traveller of Terror!’

This initial enchanting epistle concludes with Wonder Woman #117 wherein ‘The Fantastic Fishermen of the Forbidden Sea!’ revive Golden Age stars Etta Candy and the Holliday Girls – in modernised, marginally less offensive incarnations – for a fantastic tale of aquatic invaders before Amazon time-travel techniques allow the impossible to occur when ‘Wonder Girl Meets Wonder Woman!’… or do they?

By modern standards these exuberant, effulgent fantasies are all-out crazy, but as examples of the days when less attention was paid to continuity and concepts of shared universes and adventure in the moment were paramount, these outrageous romps simply sparkle with fun, thrills and sheer spectacle.

Wonder Woman is rightly revered as a focal point of female strength, independence and empowerment, but the welcoming nostalgia and easy familiarity of these costumed fairy tales remain a delight for all open-minded readers with the true value of these exploits being the incredible quality of entertainment they provide.
© 1958-1960, 2007 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Showcase


By Many and various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-78116-364-1 (TPB)

If you’re a book reviewer, Christmas often comes incredibly early. We received lots and lots of lovely new tomes in the last week and I’ve still not caught up yet, so in the meantime, I’m fobbing you all off with a reworked recommendation I was saving for our actual Christmas promotion season. It’s still a wonderful read criminally in need of re-release and a digital edition, but readily available – for now…

The review is incredibly long. If you want to skip it and just buy the book – because it’s truly brilliant – then please do. I won’t mind and you won’t regret it at all…

In almost every conceivable way, DC’s original “try-out title” Showcase created and dictated the form of the Silver Age of American comic books and is responsible for the multi-billion-dollar industry and art form we all enjoy today.

For many of us old lags, the Silver Age is the ideal era and a still-calling Promised Land of fun and thrills. Varnished by nostalgia (because it’s the era when most of us caught this crazy childhood bug), the clean-cut, unsophisticated optimism of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced captivating heroes and compelling villains who were still far less terrifying than the Cold War baddies then troubling the grown-ups. The sheer talent and unbridled professionalism of the creators working in that too-briefly revitalised comics world resulted in triumph after triumph and even inspired competitors to step up and excel: all of which brightened our young lives and still glow today with quality and achievement.

The principle was a sound one and graphically depicted in the very first issue: the Editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess fan reactions – for which read Sales…

Firmly ensconced in the age of genre thrillers and human adventurers, this magnificent, monolithic monochrome tome covers the first 21 issues from that historic series, spanning March/April 1956 to July/August 1959, and starts the ball rolling with the first and last appearances of Fireman Farrell in a proposed series dubbed Fire Fighters.

Following the aforementioned short ‘The Story Behind Showcase’ by Jack Schiff & Win Mortimer, the human-scaled dramas begin in ‘The School for Smoke-Eaters’ by Schiff and the superb John Prentice (Rip Kirby), introducing trainee fireman Mike Farrell during the last days of his training and desperate to simultaneously live up to and escape his father’s fabulous record as a legendary “smoke-eater”.

The remaining stories, both scripted by Arnold Drake, deal with the job’s daily dilemmas: firstly in ‘Fire under the Big Top’ wherein an unscrupulous showman ignored Farrell’s Fire Inspection findings with tragic consequences, and in‘Fourth Alarm’ mixing an industrial dispute over fireman’s pay, a crooked factory owner and a waterfront blaze captured on live TV in a blisteringly authentic tale of human heroism.

Showcase #2 featured Kings of the Wild: tales of animal valour imaginatively related in three tales scripted by Robert Kanigher – who had thrived after the demise of superheroes with a range of fantastical genre adventures covering western, war, espionage and straight adventure. Stunningly illustrated by Joe Kubert, ‘Rider of the Winds’ tells of a Native American lad’s relationship with his totem spirit Eagle; ‘Outcast Heroes’ (Ross Andru & Mike Esposito) relates how an orphan boy’s loneliness ends after befriending a runaway mutt who eventually saves the town’s kids from a flood before ‘Runaway Bear’ – drawn by Russ Heath – uses broad comedy to describe how an escaped circus bruin battles all the horrors of the wilderness to get return to his comfortable, safe life under the Big Top.

Issue #3 debuted Kanigher & Heath’s The Frogmen in an extended single tale following candidates for a US Underwater Demolitions Team as they move from students to successful undersea warriors. Beginning with ‘The Making of a Frogman’ as the smallest diver – mocked and chided as a ‘Sardine’ by his fellows (especially ‘Shark’ and ‘Whale’) – perseveres and forges bonds until the trio are dumped into blazing Pacific action in ‘Flying Frogmen’, learning the worth of teamwork and sacrifice by destroying a Japanese Sub base in ‘Silent War’

The feature returned as a semi-regular strip in All-American Men of War #44 (April #1957) amongst other Kanigher-edited war comics: making Frogmen the first but certainly not the last graduate of the try-out system. The next debut was to be the most successful but the cautious publishers took a long, long time to make it so…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age officially arrived began with The Flash. It’s an unjust but true fact that being first is not enough; it also helps to be best and people have to notice. The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

The industry had never really stopped trying to revive superheroes when Showcase #4 was released in late summer of 1956, with such precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955); Marvel’s Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Sentinel of Liberty (December 1953-October 1955) and even DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the close of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) still turning up in second-hand-stores and “Five-and-Dime” bargain bins. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner and Golden-Age Flash scripter Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age, aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in the exploding chemicals of his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his predecessor (scientist Jay Garrick, who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”). Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative pinnacle), Barry Allen became the point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and the entire industry.

‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt’ (Kanigher) and ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier’ (written by the superb John Broome) are polished, coolly sophisticated stories introducing the comfortingly suburban superhero and establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Whether defeating bizarre criminal masterminds such as The Turtle or returning criminal exile Mazdan to his own century, the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power. Nonetheless the concept was so controversial that despite phenomenal sales, rather than his own series the Fastest Man Alive was given a Showcase encore almost a year later…

Showcase #5 featured the last comics concept in years that didn’t actually develop into an ongoing series, but that’s certainly due to changing fashions of the times and not the quality of the work. The three crime yarns comprising cops-&-robbers anthology Manhunters, begin with ‘The Greatest Villain of all Time’ by Jack Miller & Mort Meskin, revealing how Hollywood screenwriter-turned-police detective Lt. Fowler is dogged by a madman playing for real all the fantastic bad guys the mystery author had once created, whilst ‘The Two Faces of Mr. X’ (Miller, Curt Swan & Sy Barry) finds a male model drafted by the FBI to replace a prominent mob-boss. Unfortunately, it’s the day before the gangster is scheduled for face-changing plastic surgery…

‘The Human Eel’ (Miller & Bill Ely) then pits a cop unable to endure heights against an international high-tech rogue who thinks he hold all the winning cards…

The next try-out was on far firmer fashion grounds and was the first feature to win two issues in a row.

The Challengers of the Unknown were a bridging concept. As the superhero genre was ever so cautiously alpha-tested in 1956 here was a super-team – the first new group-entry of this still-to-be codified era – but with no uncanny abilities or masks, the most basic and utilitarian of costumes, and the most dubious of motives: Suicide by Mystery…

If you wanted to play editorially safe you could argue that were simply another para-military band of adventurers like the long running Blackhawks… but they weren’t.

A huge early hit – winning their own title before The Flash (March 1959) and just two months after Lois Lane (March 1958, although she had been a star in comics since 1938 and even had TV, radio and movie recognition on her side) – the Challs struck a chord resonating for more than a decade before they finally died… only to rise again and yet again. The idea of them was stirring enough, but their initial execution made their success all but inevitable.

Jack Kirby was – and remains – the most important single influence in the history of American comics. There are quite rightly millions of words written about what the man has done and meant, and you should read those if you are at all interested in our medium. When the comic industry suffered a collapse in the mid 1950’s, Kirby briefly returned to DC, crafting genre mystery tales and revitalising the Green Arrow back-up strip whilst creating newspaper strip Sky Masters of the Space Force. He also re-packaged for Showcase an original super-team concept that had been kicking around in his head since he and long-time collaborator Joe Simon had closed their innovative but unfortunate Mainline Comics.

The Challengers of the Unknown were four extraordinary mortals; heroic adventurers and explorers brought together for a radio show who walked away unscathed from a terrible plane crash. Already obviously what we now call “adrenaline junkies”, they decided that since they were all living on borrowed time, they would dedicate what remained of their lives to testing themselves and fate. They would risk their lives for Knowledge and, of course, Justice.

Showcase #6, dated January/February 1957 – which meant it came out in time for Christmas 1956 – introduced pilot Ace Morgan, wrestler Rocky Davis, acrobat Red Ryan and scholarly marine explorer “Prof” Haley in a no-nonsense romp by Kirby, scripter Dave Wood, inkers Marvin Stein and Jack’s wife Roz, before devoting the rest of the issue to a spectacular epic with the doom-chasers hired by duplicitous magician Morelian to open an ancient casque holding otherworldly secrets and powers in ‘The Secrets of the Sorcerer’s Box!’

This story roars along with all the tension and wonder of the B-movie thrillers it emulates, and Kirby’s awesome drawing resonates with power and dynamism as the heroes tackle ancient horrors such as ‘Dragon Seed!’, ‘The Freezing Sun!’ and ‘The Whirling Weaver!’

The fantasy magic continued in the sequel: a science fiction crisis caused when an alliance of Nazi technologies with American criminality unleashes a robotic monster. Scripted by Kirby, ‘Ultivac is Loose!’ (Showcase #7, March/April 1957) introduces quietly capable boffin Dr. June Robbins, who becomes the fifth Challenger at a time when most comic females had returned to a subsidiary status in that so-conservative era.

As her computers predict ‘A Challenger Must Die!’, the lads nevertheless continue to hunt a telepathic, sentient super-robot who inadvertently terrorises ‘The Fearful Millions’ but soon find their sympathies with the tragic artificial intelligence after ‘The Fateful Prediction!’ is fulfilled…

Showcase #8 (June 1957) again featured the Flash, leading with another Kanigher tale – ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’. This perplexing but pedestrian mystery sees Frank Giacoia debut as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’. With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new phenomenon by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike Golden Age stalwarts, new super-heroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Henceforth, Bad Guys would be as visually arresting and memorable as the champions of justice. Captain Cold would return time and again as pre-eminent Flash Foe and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s classic pantheon of super-villains.

Also included is filler reprint ‘The Race of Wheel and Keel’ by Gardner Fox, Gil Kane & Harry Lazarus, from All-Star Comics #53 (June/July 1950): a true story of how in 1858 a shipping magnate and stagecoach tycoon competed to prove which method of transportation was fastest…

When Lois Lane – arguably the oldest supporting character/star in the Superman mythology if not DC universe – finally received her own shot at a solo title, it was very much on the terms of the times.

I must shamefacedly admit to a deep, nostalgic affection for her bright, breezy, fantastically fun adventures, but as a free-thinking, (nominally) adult liberal of the 21st century I’m astounded now at the jolly, patronising, patriarchally misogynistic attitudes underpinning so many of the stories.

Yes, I’m fully aware that the series was intended for young readers at a time when “dizzy dames” like Lucille Ball or Doris Day played to a popular American stereotype of Woman as jealous minx, silly goose, diffident wife and brood-hungry nester, but asking kids to seriously accept that intelligent, courageous, ambitious, ethical and highly capable females would drop everything they’d worked hard for to lie, cheat, inveigle, manipulate and entrap a man just so that they could cook pot-roast and change super-diapers is just plain crazy and tantamount to child abuse.

I’m just saying…

Showcase #9 (cover-dated July/August 1957) featured Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane in three tales by Jerry Coleman, Ruben Moreira & Al Plastino; opening with seminal yarn ‘The Girl in Superman’s Past’ wherein Lois first meets red-headed hussy Lana Lang. The childhood sweetheart of Superboy seems to be a pushy conniving go-getter out to win Lois’ intended at all costs. Naturally Miss Lane invites Miss Lang to stay at her apartment and the grand rivalry is off and running…

‘The New Lois Lane’ aggravatingly saw Lois turn over a new leaf and stop attempting to uncover his secret identity just when Superman actually needs her to do so, and the premier concludes with concussion-induced day-dream ‘Mrs. Superman’ with Lois imagining a life of domestic super-bliss…

The next issue (September/October 1957) offered three more of the same, all illustrated by Wayne Boring & Stan Kaye, beginning with ‘The Jilting of Superman’ – scripted by Otto Binder – wherein the Man of Tomorrow almost falls for an ancient ploy as Lois pretends to marry another man to make the Kryptonian clod realise what she means to him…

‘The Sightless Lois Lane’ by Coleman reveals how a nuclear accident temporarily blinds the journalist, before her unexpected recovery almost exposes Clark Kent’s secret when he callously changes to Superman in front of the blind girl. Binder delightfully closes the issue with ‘The Forbidden Box from Krypton’: a cache of devices dug up by a Smallville archaeologist originally packed by Jor-El to aid the infant superbaby on Earth. Of course, when Lois opens the chest all she sees is a way to become as powerful as the Man of Steel before becoming addicted to being a super-champion in her own right…

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane launched into her own title scant months later, clearly exactly what the readers wanted…

Showcase #11 (November/December 1957) saw the Challengers return to combat an alien invasion on ‘The Day the Earth Blew Up’, with unique realist Bruno Premiani inking a taut doomsday chiller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even today. Whilst searching for missing Antarctic explorers the Challs discover an under-ice base where double-brained aliens prepare to explosively alter the mass and gravity of Earth. Although intellectually superior, ‘The Tyrans’are no match for the indomitable human heroes and with their Plan A scotched, resort to brute force and ‘The Thing That Came out of the Sea’, even as Prof scuttles their aquatic ace in the hole with ‘One Minute to Doom’

By the time of their final Showcase cases (#12, January/February 1958) they had already secured their own title. Here, though, ‘The Menace of the Ancient Vials’ is defused by the usual blend of daredevil heroics and ingenuity (with the wonderful inking of George Klein, not Wally Wood as credited here) as international spy and criminal Karnak steals a clutch of ancient chemical weapons which create giants and ‘The Fire Being!’, summon ‘The Demon from the Depths’and materialise ‘The Deadly Duplicates!’ before the pre-fantastic four put their enemy down.

Flash zipped back in Showcase #13 (March/April 1958) in a brace of tales pencilled by Infantino and inked by Joe Giella. Written by Kanigher, ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ follows the Scarlet Speedster as he tackles atomic blackmail in Paris, foils kidnappers and rebuilds a pyramid in Egypt; dismantles an avalanche in Tibet and scuttles a pirate submarine in the Pacific, before Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ introduces outlandish chemical criminal Al Desmond who ravages Central City as Mr. Element until the Flash outwits him.

One last try-out issue – inked by Giacoia – cemented the Flash’s future: Showcase #14 (May/June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’ as the Fastest Man Alive smashes dimensional barriers to rescue his girlfriend Iris West from uncanny cosmic colossi and stamp out an alien invasion plan, after which Al Desmond returns with an altered M.O. and new identity. Doctor Alchemy’s discovery of the mystic Philosopher’s Stone makes him ‘The Man who Changed the Earth!’: a stunning yarn and worthy effort to bow out on, but it was still nearly a year until the first issue of The Flash finally hit the stands.

To reiterate: Showcase was a try-out comic designed to launch new series and concepts with minimal commitment of publishing resources. If a new character sold well initially, a regular series would follow. The process had been proved with Frogmen, Lois Lane, Challengers of the Unknown and Flash, so Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld now urged his two Showcase editors to create science fiction heroes to capitalise on the twin zeitgeists of the Space Race and the popular fascination with movie monsters and aliens. Jack Schiff came up with a “masked” crimefighter of the future – who featured in issues #15 and 16 – whilst Julie Schwartz concentrated on the now in the saga of a contemporary Earth explorer catapulted into the most uncharted territory yet imagined.

Showcase #15 (September/October 1958) commenced without fanfare – or origin – the ongoing adventures of Space Ranger – beginning in ‘The Great Plutonium Plot’ (plotted by Gardner Fox, scripted by pulp veteran Edmond Hamilton and illustrated by Bob Brown).

Their hero was in actuality Rick Starr, son of a wealthy interplanetary businessman who – thanks to incredible gadgets and the assistance of shape-shifting alien pal Cryll and capable Girl Friday Myra Mason – spent his free time battling evil and injustice. When Jarko the Jovian space pirate targets only ships carrying the trans-uranic element, Rick suspects a hidden motive. Donning his guise of the Space Ranger, he lays a cunning trap, exposing a hidden mastermind and a deadly ancient device endangering the entire solar system…

From his base in a hollow asteroid, Space Ranger ranges the universe and ‘The Robot Planet’ brings him and his team to Sirius after discovering a diabolical device designed to rip Sol’s planets out of their orbits. At the end of his voyage, Starr discovers a sublime civilisation reduced to cave-dwelling and a mighty computer intelligence intent on controlling the entire universe unless he can stop it…

Issue #16 opened with ‘The Secret of the Space Monster’ (plot by John Forte, scripted by Hamilton, illustrated by Brown) with Rick, Myra and Cryll investigating an impossible void creature and uncovering a band of alien revolutionaries testing novel super-weapons. ‘The Riddle of the Lost Race’ (Fox, Hamilton & Brown) then takes the team on a whistle-stop tour of the Solar system in pursuit of a vicious criminal and hidden treasures of a long-vanished civilisation.

A few months later Space Ranger was transported to science fiction anthology Tales of the Unexpected, beginning with issue #40 (August 1959) to hold the lead and cover spot for a 6-year run…

One of the most compelling and revered stars of those halcyon days was an ordinary Earthman who regularly travelled to another world for spectacular adventures, armed with nothing more than a ray-gun, a jetpack and his own ingenuity. His name was Adam Strange, and like so many of that era’s triumphs, he was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz and his close team of creative stars.

Showcase #17 (November/December 1958) proclaimed Adventures on Other Worlds, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Mike Sekowsky & Bernard Sachs, telling of an archaeologist who, whilst fleeing from enraged natives in Peru, jumps a 25-foot chasm only to be hit by a stray teleport beam from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. Rematerialising on another planet filled with giant plants and monsters, he is rescued by a beautiful woman named Alanna who teaches him her language via a cunning contrivance. ‘Secret of the Eternal City!’ reveals Rann is a world recovering from atomic war, and the beam Adam intercepted was in fact a simple flare, one of many sent in an attempt to communicate with other races.

In the four years (Speed of Light, right? As You Know, Bob – Alpha Centauri is about 4.3 light-years from Sol) the Zeta-Flare travelled through space, cosmic radiation converted it into a teleportation beam. Until the radiation drains from his body Strange is a most willing prisoner on a fantastic world of mystery, adventure and romance…

And an incredibly unlucky one apparently, as no sooner has Adam started acclimatising than an alien race The Eternalsinvades, seeking a mineral that grants them immortality. Strange’s courage and sharp wits enable him to defeat the invaders only to have the Zeta radiation finally fade, drawing him home before his adoring Alanna can administer a hero’s reward. Thus was established the principles of this beguiling series. Adam would intercept a Zeta-beam hoping for some time with his alien sweetheart, only to be confronted with a planet-menacing crisis.

The very next of these, ‘The Planet and the Pendulum’ sees him obtain the crimson-and-white spacesuit and weaponry that became his distinctive trademark in a tale of alien invaders attacking a lost colony of Rannians. They reside on planetary neighbour Anthorann – a fact that also introduces the major subplot of Rann’s still-warring city-states, all desperate to progress and all at different stages of recovery and development….

The next issue featured the self-explanatory ‘Invaders from the Atom Universe’ – with sub-atomic marauders displacing the native races until Adam unravels their nefarious plans – and ‘The Dozen Dooms of Adam Strange’, wherein our hero outfoxes the dictator of Dys who plans to invade Alanna’s home-city Rannagar.

With this last story, Sachs was replaced by Joe Giella as inker, although the former did ink Showcase #19’s stunning Gil Kane cover, (March/April 1959) which saw the unwieldy Adventures on Other Worlds title replaced with eponymous logo Adam Strange.

‘Challenge of the Star-Hunter’ and ‘Mystery of the Mental Menace’ are classic puzzle tales wherein the Earthman must outwit a shape-changing alien and an all-powerful energy-being. After so doing, Adam Strange took over the lead spot and cover of anthology comic Mystery in Space with the August issue.

Clearly on a creative high and riding a building wave, Showcase #20 (May/June 1959) introduced Rip Hunter… Time Master and his dauntless crew as Prisoners of 100 Million BC’ (by Jack Miller & Ruben Moreira) in a novel-length introductory escapade seeing the daredevil physicist, his engineer friend Jeff Smith, girlfriend Bonnie Baxter and her little brother Corky travel to the Mesozoic era, unaware they are carrying two criminal stowaways.

Once there, the thugs hi-jack the Time Sphere, holding it hostage until the explorers help them stock up with rare and precious minerals. Reduced to the status of castaways, Rip and his team become ‘The Modern-Day Cavemen’, but when an erupting volcano provokes ‘The Great Beast Stampede’, our dauntless chrononauts finally turn the tables on their abductors…

Miller was always careful to use the best research available, but never afraid to blend historical fact with bold fantasy for Hunter’s escapades, and this volume concludes with an epic follow-up. Illustrated by Sekowsky & Joe Giella, ‘The Secret of the Lost Continent’ (Showcase #21, July/August, 1959,) has the Time Masters jump progressively further back in time in search of Atlantis. Starting with a dramatic meeting with Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, the explorers follow the trail back centuries to ‘The Forbidden Island’ of Aeaea in 700 BCE and uncover the secret of the witch Circe before finally reaching 14,000 BCE and ‘The Doomed Continent’ only to find the legendary pinnacle of early human achievement to be a colony of stranded extraterrestrial refugees…

Rip Hunter would appear twice more in Showcase before winning his own comic. The succeeding months would see the Silver Age truly kick into High Gear with classic launches coming thick and fast…

These stories from a uniquely influential comic book determined the course of the entire American strip culture and for that alone they should be cherished, but the fact they are still some of the most timeless, accessible and entertaining graphic adventures ever produced is a gift that should be celebrated by every fan and casual reader.

Buy this for yourself, get it for your friends and get a spare just because you can…
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 2012 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

DC’s First Issue Specials


By Jack Kirby, Joe Simon & Jerry Grandenetti, Bob Haney & Ramona Fradon, Robert Kanigher & John Rosenberger, Michael Fleischer & Steve Ditko, Mike Grell, Martin Pasko & Walter Simonson, Gerry Conway & Frank Redondo, Mike Vosburg, Denny O’Neil & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1779501776 (HB)

Nobody knows where ideas come from, but at least in comics it’s easy to see how they turn out. Mainstream companies have always favoured try-out vehicles – like Gold Key’s Four Color; Magazine Enterprises’ A-1; DC’s Showcase and The Brave and the Bold; Charlton Bullseye; Marvel Premiere and Marvel Spotlight – and the principle was a sound one, graphically depicted in every first issue. In the late 1950s, editors at National/DC were apparently bombarded with readers’ suggestions for new titles and concepts and the only possible way to feasibly prove which would be popular was to offer test runs and assess the fans reactions. The results kickstarted the Silver Age and introduced dozens of immortal, profitable characters and concepts…

When the comic book revolution seemed to be fading out in the mid-1970s it was revived in part by innovative scheduling and a new awareness of the need to experiment, leading to this sturdy hardback/digital compilation of some genuine hits and near-misses…

Originally printed as 1st Issue Special #1-13, spanning April 1975 to April 1976, it’s supplemented by then-Editor Gerry Conway’s revelatory Introduction ‘If at First You Don’t Succeed’.

Famed for his larger-than-life characters and gigantic, cosmic imaginings, Jack Kirby was an astute, imaginative, spiritual man who had lived through poverty and gangsterism, the Depression, Post-War optimism, Cold War paranoia, political cynicism and the birth and death of peace-seeking counter-cultures. He was open-minded and utterly wedded to the making of comics stories on every imaginable subject. He always believed sequential narrative was worthy of being published as real books beside mankind’s other literary art forms. It’s a genuine shame he didn’t live long enough to see today’s vibrant and vastly varied graphic novel industry.

On ending his third sojourn at the company – just prior to returning to Marvel for 2001: A Space Odyssey/Machine Man, Captain America, Black Panther and more – Kirby unleashed a bunch of new options for DC to expand and capitalise on over the coming decades. Other than Kobra – which was hastily reworked by other hands and given its own series – they all appeared in the new Comics Showcase.

Debuting in the debut 1st Issue Special #1 and inked by D. Bruce Berry, ‘Atlas the Great!’ harks back to the dawn of human civilisation and the blockbusting travails of mankind’s first super-powered champion in a bombastic and tantalizing Sword & Sorcery yarn.

Kirby’s collaborations with fellow industry pioneer Joe Simon always produced dynamite concepts, unforgettable characters, astounding stories and huge sales, no matter what genre avenues they pursued. They blazed trails for so many others to follow; reshaping the nature of American comics with their innovations and sheer quality. Simon & Kirby offered stories shaped by their own sensibilities: always testing fresh ideas and avenues. They chased ideas for comics nobody else ever had before, identifying gaps and probing potential.

Although junior plutocrat Richie Rich had been coining it for Harvey Comics for decades, Simon and old collaborator Jerry Grandenetti looked for drama as well as laughs in the set-up and came up with ‘The Green Team: Boy Millionaires’ for the second 1st Issue.

Here magnate minors The Commodore (shipping), JP Houston (oil) and Cecil Sunbeam (moviemaker) are joined by black shoeshine boy Abdul Smith after a banking error turns the industrious lad into an instant parvenu. Dedicated to adventure and social advancement, the kids then unwisely back ‘The Great American Pleasure Machine’

The first of a string of potential revivals follows as Metamorpho the Element Man returns courtesy of fabled originators Bob Haney & Ramona Fradon. ‘The Freak and the Billion-Dollar Phantom’ sees Rex Mason seeking to thwart the vengeful schemes of a ghost betrayed by America’s Founding Fathers and resolved to destroy Washington DC.

For #4, Robert Kanigher, John Rosenberger & Vince Colletta introduce a truly novel but now unfortunately dated concept in ‘Lady Cop’.

Earnest, well-meaning and immaculately rendered by the criminally-underappreciated Rosenberger, the tale of college student Liza Warner – who survives a serial killer and takes control of her life by becoming a police officer – is rather heavy-handed, but addresses in ‘Poisoned Love’ issues of controlling boyfriends, parental abuse, underage sex and venereal disease with a degree of mature understanding we’d be hard-pressed to see these days. I think she was one of the few characters still dormant since her debut…

Kirby – with Berry – returned in #5 (August 1975) to revise his own Golden Age stalwart safari guide Paul Kirk replaced by a frustrated lawyer. This passing of a torch sees a devout evil-crusher working for an ancient justice-cult retire: beguiling his nephew – Public Defender Mark Shaw – to become the latest super-powered ‘Manhunter’ battling ancient wickedness with alien super-tech…

A rare but welcome digression into comedy manifested as ‘The Dingbats of Danger Street’ disgraced 1st Issue Special #6, with Mike Royer inking a bizarre and hilarious revival of Kirby’s Kid Gang genre starring four multi-racial street urchins united for survival and annoying the heck out of cheesy thugs and surreal super threats like Jumping Jack and The Gasser

Steve Ditko’s startling psychedelic avenger The Creeper debuted in early 1968, parlaying his premier in Showcase #73 into a superb but brief run in Beware the Creeper before being cancelled with the sixth issue (March/April 1969) – by which time Ditko had all but abandoned his creation. It was fun and thrilling and – unlike many series which folded at that troubled time – even provided an actual conclusion, but somehow wasn’t satisfactory or what the public wanted.

This was a time when superheroes went into steep decline, with supernatural and genre material regaining prominence throughout the industry. With Fights ‘n’ Tights comics folding all over, Ditko concentrated again on Charlton’s mystery line, the occasional horror piece for Warren and his own projects…

In the years his own comic was dormant, the Creeper enjoyed numerous guest shots in other comics, which established that the city he prowled was in fact Gotham. When Ditko returned to DC in the mid-1970s, 1st Issue Special snapped him up.

Issue #7 (October 1975) gave the quirky crusader another shot at stardom in ‘Menace of the Human Firefly’ written by Michael Fleisher and inked by Mike Royer. It saw reinstated TV journalist Jack Ryder inspecting the fantastic felons in Gotham Penitentiary just as manic lifer Garfield Lynns breaks jail to resume his interrupted costumed career as the master of lighting effects.

By the time the rogue’s brief but brilliant rampage is over, the Creeper has discovered something extremely disturbing about his own ever-evolving abilities…

The story wasn’t enough to immediately restart the rollercoaster, but a few years later DC instituted a policy of giant-sized anthologies and the extra page counts allowed a number of lesser lights to secure back-up slots and shine again. Written and drawn by Ditko, The Creeper became a regular in World’s Finest Comics

During the troubled 1970s the American comics industry suffered one of the worst of its periodic downturns and publishers desperately cast about for anything to bolster the flagging sales of superhero comics.

By revising their self-imposed industry code of practice (administered by the Comics Code Authority) to allow supernatural and horror comics, publishers tapped into the global revival of interest in spiritualism and the supernatural, and as a by-product opened their doors to Sword-and-Sorcery as a viable genre with Roy Thomas & Barry Windsor-Smith’s take on R. E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian an early exemplar.

DC launched a host of titles into that budding market but although individually interesting nothing stuck until First Issue Special #8.

With The Warlord, popular Legion of Super-Heroes artist Mike Grell launched his pastiche, homage and tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s works (particularly Pellucidar – At the Earth’s Core) which, after a rather shaky start (just like Conan, the series was cancelled early in the run but rapidly reinstated) went on to become for a time DC’s most popular title.

Blending swords, sorcery and super-science with spectacular, visceral derring-do, the lost land of Skartaris is a venue expertly designed for adventure: stuffed with cavemen, warriors, mythical creatures, dinosaurs and scantily-clad hotties. How could it possibly fail?

The magic commences with ‘Land of Fear!’ as in 1969, U2 spy-pilot Colonel Travis Morgan is shot down whilst filming a secret Soviet base. The embattled aviator manages to fly his plane over the North Pole before ditching, expecting to land on frozen Tundra or pack-ice on the right side of the Iron Curtain.

Instead, he finds himself inside the Earth, marooned in a vast, tropical jungle where the sun never sets. The incredible land is populated by creatures from every era of history and many that never made it into the science books. Plunging head-on into the madness, the baffled airman saves an embattled princess from a hungry saurian before both are captured by soldiers. Taken to the city of Thera, Morgan is taught the language by fellow captive Tara and makes an implacable enemy of the court wizard Deimos. After surviving an assassination attempt the pair escape into the eternal noon of the land beneath the Earth.

Within months Morgan had his own-bimonthly title written, pencilled and inked by Grell.

Another delayed reaction revival in #9 saw Golden Age mage ‘dr. fate’ reintroduced and revamped thanks to arch stylists Martin Pasko & Walter Simonson.

A brilliant imagination and, by his own admission, more designer than artist, Simonson broke through in the standard manner in the early 1970s by illustrating short stories for DC’s anthology comics – a valuable and much-missed proving ground for budding talent. Whilst working on Fritz Leiber’s licensed property Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser for the seminal Sword of Sorcery comic-book, he was commissioned by Archie Goodwin to illustrate groundbreaking, award-winning Manhunter feature for Detective Comics and instantly catapulted to the forefront of comics creators.

Here he and Pasko reintegrate the best elements of the Golden Age run as the master of magic battles accursed and murderous Egyptian mummy Khalis, who seeks to turn back time and unmake the world. The tale allowed the artist to stretch himself and explore his increasing fascination with patterns, symbols and especially typography. It’s a cracking good read too, which redefined and repositioned Fate for decades to come.

Simon & Grandenetti, with Creig Flessel, used #10 to unleash ‘The Outsiders’, a band of truly creepy freaks united by Doctor Goodie/Doc Scary to save the ugly, unwanted and persecuted from bigotry and intolerance after which ‘Code Name: Assassin’ sees Conway expand his concept of Good Bad Men (which created The Punisher) as augmented telekinetic Jonathan Drew declares war on crime and death to evil in a tantalising yarn-of-its-time illustrated by Frank Redondo & Al Milgrom. Assassin would eventually resurface as a Superman villain.

Starman is a character and property DC regularly revises, and First Issue Special #12 (March 1976) saw one of the most radical reinterpretations as Conway, Mike Vosburg & Royer introduce Mikaal Tomas: point-man for an imminent alien invasion of Earth. What could possibly make him betray his people, his duty and his true love to abruptly switch sides and fight for humanity?

The last try-out in this run was without doubt the most significant. Not only did the tale lead to an new series, but it also cemented New Genesis, Apokolips and especially ultimate villain Darkseid as pivotal to the further unfolding of the DCU. The characters have never been long absent from the continuity.

When Kirby moved back to DC in 1970, he created one of the most powerful concepts in comics history. His Fourth World inserted a whole new mythology into the existing DC universe and blew the minds of a generation of readers. Starting with Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, he revived the 1940s kid-team The Newsboy Legion; introduced large-scale cloning in the form of The Project, and hinted the city’s gangsters had otherworldly backers. He then moved on to the Forever People, New Gods and Mister Miracle: an interlinked triptych of projected miniseries forming an epic mosaic.

These titles introduced rival races of gods – dark and light – risen from the ashes of a previous Armageddon to battle forever. And then their conflict spread to Earth…

Kirby’s concepts, as always, fired and inspired his contemporaries and successors. The gods of Apokolips and New Genesis have become a crucial foundation of the DC universe, surviving numerous revisions and retcons periodically bedevilling continuity-hounds.

Many major talents have dabbled with the concept over the years and many titles have come and gone starring Kirby’s creations. It all began with the final 1st Issue Special #13 and ‘Return of the New Gods’.

Almost before the dust had settled from Jack’s departure back to Marvel, his greatest creation was revived. With Conway plotting, Denny O’Neil scripting & Vosburg rendering a resurrection of the uncompleted saga, ‘Lest Night Fall Forever!’sees modern war god Orion battling Apokolyptian enemies on Earth as his wicked sire seeks again the anti-Life Equation. It’s time to assemble a new team and rush to humanity’s aid…

With covers by Kirby, Grandenetti, Fradon, Rosenberger & Dick Giordano, Ditko, Grell, Joe Kubert and Ernie Chan, plus apposite text features from original issues accompanying each tale telling ‘The Story Behind the Story’, this is a true gem for fans that will also impress newbies looking for the odd timeless thrill….
© 1975, 1976, 2020 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Flash: The Silver Age Volume One


By John Broome, Robert Kanigher, Carmine Infantino & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-6110-8 (TPB)

The actual Silver Age of US comics is formally and forever tied to Showcase #4 and the rebirth of the Flash. The epochal issue was released in the late summer of 1956 and from it stems all today’s print, animation, games, collector cards, cos-play, TV and movie wonderment. Let’s all shout a hearty Happy 65th Anniversary to the entire modern comics phenomenon…

No matter which way you look at it, the Silver Age of American comic books began with The Flash, but it’s an unjust yet true fact that being first is not enough: it also helps to be best and people have to notice. MLJ’s The Shield beat Captain America to the news-stands by over a year yet the former is all but forgotten today.

America’s comic book industry had never really stopped trying to revive the superhero genre when Showcase #4 was released in 1956. Readers had already been blessed – but were left generally unruffled by – such tentative precursors as The Avenger (February-September 1955); Captain Flash (November 1954-July 1955) and a full revival of Marvel’s 1940s “Big Three” – the Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and aforementioned Captain America from December 1953 to October 1955. Both DC’s own Captain Comet (December 1953-October 1955) and Manhunter from Mars (November 1955 until the end of the 1960’s and almost the end of superheroes again!) had come and been barely noticed. What made the new Fastest Man Alive stand out and stick was … well, everything!

Once DC’s powers-that-be decided to seriously try superheroes once more, they moved pretty fast themselves. Editor Julie Schwartz asked office partner, fellow editor and Golden-Age Flash scripter Robert Kanigher to recreate a speedster for the Space Age: aided and abetted by Carmine Infantino & Joe Kubert, who had also worked on the previous incarnation.

The new Flash was Barry Allen, a forensic scientist simultaneously struck by lightning and bathed in exploding chemicals from his lab. Supercharged by the accident, Barry took his superhero identity from a comic book featuring his notional predecessor (a scientist named Jay Garrick who was exposed to the mutagenic fumes of “Hard Water”).

Designing a sleek, streamlined bodysuit (courtesy of Infantino – a major talent rapidly approaching his artistic and creative peak), Barry Allen became point man for the spectacular revival of a genre and an entire industry.

This splendid trade paperback and digital compilation superbly compliments Infantino’s talents and the tone of the period. These stories have been gathered many times but still offers punch, clarity and the ineffably comforting yet thrilling tone of those now-distant times. Conversely, you might be as old as me and it was only the day before yesterday…

This is what a big book of comics ought to feel like in your eager, sweaty hands.

Collecting all four try-out issues (Showcase #4, 8, 13 and 14) – and the first dozen issues of his own title (The Flash volume 1 #105-116, spanning October 1956 to November 1960) the high-speed thrills begin with Showcase #4’s ‘Mystery of the Human Thunderbolt!’

Scripted by Kanigher, it sees Barry endure his electrical metamorphosis and promptly go on to subdue bizarre criminal mastermind and “Slowest Man Alive” Turtle Man, after which ‘The Man Who Broke the Time Barrier!’ – scripted by the brilliant John Broome – finds the newly-minted Scarlet Speedster batting a criminal from the future before returning penal exile Mazdan to his own century, proving the new Flash was a protagonist of keen insight and sharp wits as well as overwhelming power.

These are all slickly polished, coolly sophisticated short stories introducing the comfortingly ordinary, suburbanite superhero and firmly establishing the broad parameters of his universe. Showcase #8 (June 1957) opens with another Kanigher tale. ‘The Secret of the Empty Box’ is a perplexing if pedestrian mystery, with veteran Frank Giacoia returning as inker, but the real landmark is Broome’s thriller ‘The Coldest Man on Earth’.

With this yarn the author confirmed and consolidated the new costumed character reality by introducing the first of a Rogues Gallery of outlandish super-villains. Unlike the Golden Age, modern superheroes would face predominantly costumed foes rather than thugs and spies. Bad guys would henceforth be as memorable as the champions of justice.

Captain Cold would return time and again and Broome would go on to create every single member of Flash’s pantheon of classic super-foes.

Joe Giella inked both adventures in Showcase #13 (April 1958). Kanigher’s ‘Around the World in 80 Minutes’ displayed Flash’s versatility as he tackles atomic terrorists, battles Arabian bandits, counters an avalanche on Mount Everest and scuttles submarine pirates in the specified time slot. Broome’s ‘Master of the Elements’ then premiers outlandish Mr. Element, who utilises the periodic table as his formidable, innovative arsenal…

Showcase #14 (June 1958) opens with Kanigher’s eerie ‘Giants of the Time-World!’: a masterful fantasy thriller and a worthy effort to bow out on as Flash and girlfriend Iris West encounter extra-dimensional invaders with the strangest life-cycle imaginable.

The issue closed with a return engagement for Mr. Element, sporting a new M.O. and identity: Doctor Alchemy. ‘The Man Who Changed the Earth!’ is a classic crime-caper with serious psychological underpinnings as Flash struggles to overcome the villain’s latest weapon: mystic transmutational talisman the Philosopher’s Stone…

When the Scarlet Speedster graduated to his own title, Broome became lead writer, supplemented by Gardner Fox. Kanigher would return briefly in the mid-1960s and later write a number of tales during DC’s ‘Relevancy’ period. Taking its own sweet time, The Flash #105 launched with a February-March 1959 cover-date (so it was out for Christmas 1958) and opened with Broome, Infantino & Giella’s sci-fi chiller ‘Conqueror From 8 Million B.C.!’ before introducing yet another money-mad super-villain in ‘The Master of Mirrors!’

Issue #106 premiered one of the most charismatic and memorable baddies in comics history. Gorilla Grodd and his hidden race of telepathic super-simians instantly captured fan attention in ‘Menace of the Super-Gorilla!’ and even after Flash soundly thrashed the hairy hooligan, Grodd promptly returned in the next two issues.

Presumably this early confidence was fuelled by DC’s inexplicable but commercially sound pro-Gorilla editorial stance (in those far-ago days for some reason any comic with a substantial simian in it spectacularly outsold those that didn’t) but these tales are also packed with tension, action and challenging fantasy concepts. By way of encore here is ‘The Pied Piper of Peril!’: a mesmerising musical criminal mastermind, stealing for fun and attention rather than profit…

Issue #107 led with the ‘Return of the Super-Gorilla!’ by regular team Broome, Infantino & Giella: a multi-layered fantasy taking our hero from the African (invisible) city of the Super-Gorillas to the subterranean citadel of antediluvian Ornitho-Men, before closing with ‘The Amazing Race Against Time’, featuring an amnesiac who could outrun the Fastest Man Alive in a desperate collaborative dash to save all of creation from obliteration. With every issue the stakes got higher whilst the dramatic quality and narrative ingenuity got better!

Frank Giacoia inked #108’s high-tech death-trap thriller ‘The Speed of Doom!’ with trans-dimensional raiders stealing fulgurites (look it up, if you want) but Giella was back for ‘The Super-Gorilla’s Secret Identity!’ wherein Grodd devises a scheme to outwit evolution itself by turning himself into a human…

The next issue saw ‘The Return of the Mirror-Master’ with the first in a series of bizarre physical transformations that would increasingly become a signature device for Flash stories, whilst the contemporary Space Race provided an evocative maguffin for a fantastic undersea adventure in the ‘Secret of the Sunken Satellite’. Here Flash encountered an unsuspected sub-sea race on the edge of extinction whilst enquiring after the impossible survival of an astronaut trapped at the bottom of the sea.

The Flash #110 was a major landmark, not so much for the debut of another worthy addition to the burgeoning Rogues Gallery in ‘The Challenge of the Weather Wizard’ (inked by Schwartz’s incredibly versatile artistic top-gun Murphy Anderson) but rather for the introduction of Wally West, who in a bizarre and suspicious replay of the lightning strike that created the Vizier of Velocity became a junior version of the Fastest Man Alive.

Inked by Giella, ‘Meet Kid Flash!’ introduced the first teenaged sidekick of the Silver Age (cover dated December 1959-January 1960 and just pipping Aqualad who premiered in Adventure Comics #269 with a February off-sale date).

Not only would Kid Flash begin his own series of back-up tales from the very next issue (a sure sign of the confidence the creators had in the character) but he would eventually inherit the mantle of the Flash himself – one of the few occasions in comics where such torch-passing actually stuck.

Anderson inked #111’s ‘The Invasion of the Cloud Creatures’ which successfully overcomes its frankly daft premise to deliver a taut, tense sci-fi thriller nicely counterpointing the first solo outing for Kid Flash in ‘The Challenge of the Crimson Crows!’

This folksy parable has small-town kid Wally use his new powers to rescue a gang of kids on the slippery slope to juvenile delinquency. Perhaps a tad paternalistic and heavy-handed by today’s standards, in the opening months of 1960 this was a strip about a boy heroically dealing with a kid’s real dilemmas. This occasional series would concentrate on such human-scaled problems, leaving super-menaces and world-saving for team-ups with his mentor.

Flash #112 – ‘The Mystery of the Elongated Man’ – introduced an intriguing super-stretchable newcomer to the DC universe, who might have been hero or villain in a beguiling tantaliser, after which Wally tackled juvenile Go-Karters and corrupt school contractors in the surprisingly gripping ‘Danger on Wheels!’

Mercurial maniac The Trickster launched his crime career in #113’s lead tale ‘Danger in the Air!’ and the second-generation speedster took a break so that his senior partner could defeat ‘The Man Who Claimed the Earth!’: a full-on cosmic epic wherein ancient alien Po-Siden attempts to bring the lost colony of Earth back into the galaxy-spanning Empire of Zus.

Captain Cold and Murphy Anderson returned for ‘The Big Freeze’, where the smitten villain turns Central City into a glacier just to impress Barry’s girlfriend Iris. Meanwhile, her nephew Wally saves a boy unjustly accused of cheating from a life of crime when the despondent student falls under the influence of the ‘King of the Beatniks!’

Flash #115 offered another bizarre transformation, courtesy of Gorilla Grodd in ‘The Day Flash Weighed 1000 Pounds!’, and when aliens attempt to conquer Earth, the slimmed-down champion needs ‘The Elongated Man’s Secret Weapon’ as well as the guest-star himself to save the day. Once again Anderson’s inking gave over-taxed Joe Giella a breather whilst taking art-lovers’ breath away in this beautiful, fast-paced thriller.

This gloriously satisfying volume concludes with Flash #116 as ‘The Man Who Stole Central City’ sees a seemingly fool-proof way to kill the valiant hero, which takes both time-tinkering and serious outwitting to avoid, whilst Kid Flash returns in ‘The Race to Thunder Hill’: a father-son tale of rally driving, but with car-stealing bandits and a young love interest for Wally to complicate the proceedings.

These earliest tales were historically vital to the development of our industry but, quite frankly, so what? The first exploits of The Flash should be judged solely on merit, and on those terms they are punchy, awe-inspiring, beautifully illustrated and captivating thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old devotees. This lovely collection is a must-read item for anybody in love with our art-form and especially for anyone just now encountering the hero for the first time through his TV incarnation.
© 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 2016 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Plastic Man Archives volume 7


By Jack Cole, with Joe Millard, Gwen Hansen, John Spranger, Alex Kotzky & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0413-6 (HB)

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets, he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958, at the peak of his greatest success, he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

Plastic Man debuted at the back of Police Comics #1 (August 1941) as a slight, comedy filler feature amongst the more serious Cops ‘n’ Robbers fare but “Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian is a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he is saved by a monk who nurses him back to health and proves to the hardened thug that the world is not filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible elasticity, Eel resolves to put his new powers to good use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with. Creating a costumed alter ego, he starts a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon reluctantly adopts the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks is a dopey, indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who once – accidentally – saved a wizard’s life. He was blessed in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature will henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces feel like it…

After utterly failing to halt the unlikely untouchable’s subsequent crime spree, Plas appeals to the scoundrel’s sentimentality and, once Woozy tearfully repents, is compelled to keep him around in case he ever strays again. The oaf is slavishly loyal but perpetually back-sliding into pernicious old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembles, Winks is the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, morally bankrupt reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who gets all the best lines, possessing an inexplicable charm and habit of finding trouble. It was always the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

Despite being a fan favourite for decades and regularly reinvented for both comics and television Plas, is woefully underrepresented in the archival reprint realm. These long out-of-print Archive editions are the only seriously curated collections of his outlandish adventures, but hope springs eternal for new editions or – at the very least – a digital collection someday…

Covering May to October 1947, this sublimely sturdy seventh full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #7 and 8 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics #66-71. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Bud Plant offers a historical assessment of Cole and his collaborators in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of Plastic Man #7 (Spring 1947) commence with ‘The Evil Doctor Volt’by scripter Joe Millard and Cole, wherein an elite criminal genius’ plans are continually scuppered by common uneducated crooks and the world’s dumbest hero sidekick, after which Woozy’s eagerness to do good deeds lands him on a treasure-hunter’s ship after he’s ratcheted by a sinister seductress pressganging innocent men into a ‘One-Way Voyage of Villainy’ (by Cole with Millard & Alex Kotzky)…

Woozy had his own regular solo feature in Plastic Man, and here the Stalwart Simpleton seek to improve his deductive abilities and crimebusting skills at ‘Professor Rudge’s Mind-Training School’ (Gwen Hansen & Cole), Perhaps, he should have asked where teacher got all his knowledge and experience from…

Prose science fiction tale ‘The Glass Planet’ leads back to comical comics as Millard & Cole reveal ‘The Billboard’s Tale’, closing the issue with a skyscraper ad display detailing a war between marketing companies that endangered the entire city and made the signage feel really special again…

Cole expended most of his creative energies and multitalented attentions on the monthly Police Comics and in #66, depicts Plas trying to get the goods on ruthless construction cheat Naughty Nikko as he skimps on a new West River Tunnel. Everybody would be far better served watching stylish concubine ‘Beauteous Bessie’. Woozy sure is…

For #67, our heroes are put through the wringer by jolly joker ‘The Gag Man’ whose love of kids extends to their worth as police diversions and human shields after which Plastic Man #8 opens with ‘The Hot Rod’ (Hansen & Cole) wherein a contract killer successfully eludes all efforts to catch him until injected by one victim with a serum that turns him into a human firebrand before ‘Concerto for Murder’ (Hansen & Cole) sees Woozy join an orchestra just in time to see the conductor murdered in full view of everyone. Happily, supportive Plas is on hand…

Winks’ solo strip – by Hansen & John Spranger – sees the affable goon befriend a crazy artist who can instantly change the appearance of everything by covering it with ‘The Mystery Paint’, whilst anonymous prose vignette ‘Doomsby’s Doom’explodes a monster myth threatening a plantation crop, after which the comic concludes with the tragedy of deranged criminal Mr. Uglee who offers a huge pay-out to the person who can turn himself into ‘The Homeliest Man in the World’(Millard & Spranger)…

Police Comics #68 (July 1947) follows the FBI star – and Woozy – as he trails an escaped criminal mastermind to California and is sucked into showbiz inPlas Goes to Hollywood’ before returning home to meet his match in #69’s ‘Stretcho, the India Rubber Man’: a murderous performer who frames the hero at the behest of vengeful convicts.

Spies frantically, lethally hunting a hidden secret shade #70’s ‘It’s an Ill Wind that Blows the Hat’, with Woozy sporting a string of chapeaus likely to lose him his head before the manic mayhem pauses once more with a case in cowboy country as ‘East is East and West is West’ finds FBI tenderfeet Plas and Woozy hunting rustlers and stamp-stealers and finding an East Coast bigshot who’s gone native…

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious gag-packed covers, this is a true masterclass of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating eight decades after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans should take every opportunity to enjoy, so let’s pray someone at DC is paying attention…

© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

 

29th Plas 7 (Comedy/DC Superhero/Humour/Plastic Man)

Plastic Man Archives volume 7

By Jack Cole, with Joe Millard, Gwen Hansen, John Spranger, Alex Kotzky & various (DC Comics)

ISBN: 978-1-4012-0413-6 (HB)

Jack Cole was one of the most uniquely gifted talents of American comics’ Golden Age. Before moving into mature magazine and gag markets, he originated landmark tales in horror, true crime, war, adventure and especially superhero comicbooks, and his incredible humour-hero Plastic Man remains an unsurpassed benchmark of screwball costumed hi-jinks: frequently copied but never equalled. It was a glittering career of distinction which Cole was clearly embarrassed by and unhappy with.

In 1954 Cole quit comics for the lucrative and prestigious field of magazine cartooning, swiftly becoming a household name when his brilliant watercolour gags and stunningly saucy pictures began regularly running in Playboy from the fifth issue.

Cole eventually moved into the lofty realms of newspaper strips and, in May 1958, achieved his life-long ambition by launching a syndicated newspaper strip, the domestic comedy Betsy and Me.

On August 13th 1958, at the peak of his greatest success, he took his own life. The reasons remain unknown.

Without doubt – and despite his other triumphal comicbook innovations such as Silver Streak, Daredevil, The Claw, Death Patrol, Midnight, Quicksilver, The Barker, The Comet and a uniquely twisted and phenomenally popular take on the crime and horror genres – Cole’s greatest creation and contribution was the zany Malleable Marvel who quickly grew from a minor back-up character into one of the most memorable and popular heroes of the era.

Plastic Man debuted at the back of Police Comics #1 (August 1941) as a slight, comedy filler feature amongst the more serious Cops ‘n’ Robbers fare but “Plas” was the wondrously perfect fantastic embodiment of the sheer energy, verve and creativity of an era when anything went and comics-makers were prepared to try out every outlandish idea…

Eel O’Brian is a brilliant career criminal wounded during a factory robbery, soaked by a vat of spilled acid and callously abandoned by his thieving buddies. Left for dead, he is saved by a monk who nurses him back to health and proves to the hardened thug that the world is not filled with brutes and vicious chisellers after a fast buck.

His entire outlook altered and now blessed with incredible elasticity, Eel resolves to put his new powers to good use: cleaning up the scum he used to run with. Creating a costumed alter ego, he starts a stormy association with the New York City cops before being recruited as a most special agent of the FBI…

He soon reluctantly adopts the most unforgettable comedy sidekick in comics history. Woozy Winks is a dopey, indolent slob and utterly amoral pickpocket who once – accidentally – saved a wizard’s life. He was blessed in return with a gift of invulnerability: all the forces of nature will henceforth protect him from injury or death – if said forces feel like it…

After utterly failing to halt the unlikely untouchable’s subsequent crime spree, Plas appeals to the scoundrel’s sentimentality and, once Woozy tearfully repents, is compelled to keep him around in case he ever strays again. The oaf is slavishly loyal but perpetually back-sliding into pernicious old habits…

Equal parts Artful Dodger and Mr Micawber, with the verbal skills and intellect of Lou Costello’s screen persona or the over-filled potato sack he resembles, Winks is the perfect foil for Plastic Man: a lazy, greedy, morally bankrupt reprobate with perennially sticky fingers who gets all the best lines, possessing an inexplicable charm and habit of finding trouble. It was always the ideal marriage of inconvenience…

Despite being a fan favourite for decades and regularly reinvented for both comics and television Plas, is woefully underrepresented in the archival reprint realm. These long out-of-print Archive editions are the only seriously curated collections of his outlandish adventures, but hope springs eternal for new editions or – at the very least – a digital collection someday…

Covering May to October 1947, this sublimely sturdy seventh full-colour hardback exposes more eccentrically exaggerated exploits of the elastic eidolon from Plastic Man #7 and 8 and his regular monthly beat in Police Comics#66-71. Before the hilarious action kicks off, Bud Plant offers a historical assessment of Cole and his collaborators in the Foreword after which the power-packed contents of Plastic Man #7 (Spring 1947) commence with ‘The Evil Doctor Volt’by scripter Joe Millard and Cole, wherein an elite criminal genius’ plans are continually scuppered by common uneducated crooks and the world’s dumbest hero sidekick, after which Woozy’s eagerness to do good deeds lands him on a treasure-hunter’s ship after he’s ratcheted by a sinister seductress pressganging innocent men into a ‘One-Way Voyage of Villainy’ (by Cole with Millard & Alex Kotzky)…

Woozy had his own regular solo feature in Plastic Man, and here the Stalwart Simpleton seek to improve his deductive abilities and crimebusting skills at ‘Professor Rudge’s Mind-Training School’ (Gwen Hansen & Cole), Perhaps, he should have asked where teacher got all his knowledge and experience from…

Prose science fiction tale ‘The Glass Planet’ leads back to comical comics as Millard & Cole reveal ‘The Billboard’s Tale’, closing the issue with a skyscraper ad display detailing a war between marketing companies that endangered the entire city and made the signage feel really special again…

Cole expended most of his creative energies and multitalented attentions on the monthly Police Comics and in #66, depicts Plas trying to get the goods on ruthless construction cheat Naughty Nikko as he skimps on a new West River Tunnel. Everybody would be far better served watching stylish concubine ‘Beauteous Bessie’. Woozy sure is…

For #67, our heroes are put through the wringer by jolly joker ‘The Gag Man’ whose love of kids extends to their worth as police diversions and human shields after which Plastic Man #8 opens with ‘The Hot Rod’ (Hansen & Cole) wherein a contract killer successfully eludes all efforts to catch him until injected by one victim with a serum that turns him into a human firebrand before ‘Concerto for Murder’ (Hansen & Cole) sees Woozy join an orchestra just in time to see the conductor murdered in full view of everyone. Happily, supportive Plas is on hand…

Winks’ solo strip – by Hansen & John Spranger – sees the affable goon befriend a crazy artist who can instantly change the appearance of everything by covering it with ‘The Mystery Paint’, whilst anonymous prose vignette ‘Doomsby’s Doom’explodes a monster myth threatening a plantation crop, after which the comic concludes with the tragedy of deranged criminal Mr. Uglee who offers a huge pay-out to the person who can turn himself into ‘The Homeliest Man in the World’(Millard & Spranger)…

Police Comics #68 (July 1947) follows the FBI star – and Woozy – as he trails an escaped criminal mastermind to California and is sucked into showbiz inPlas Goes to Hollywood’ before returning home to meet his match in #69’s ‘Stretcho, the India Rubber Man’: a murderous performer who frames the hero at the behest of vengeful convicts.

Spies frantically, lethally hunting a hidden secret shade #70’s ‘It’s an Ill Wind that Blows the Hat’, with Woozy sporting a string of chapeaus likely to lose him his head before the manic mayhem pauses once more with a case in cowboy country as ‘East is East and West is West’ finds FBI tenderfeet Plas and Woozy hunting rustlers and stamp-stealers and finding an East Coast bigshot who’s gone native…

Augmented by all the astoundingly ingenious gag-packed covers, this is a true masterclass of funnybook virtuosity: still exciting, breathtakingly original, thrilling, witty, scary, visually outrageous and pictorially intoxicating eight decades after Jack Cole first put pen to paper.

Plastic Man is a unique creation and this is a magical experience comics fans should take every opportunity to enjoy, so let’s pray someone at DC is paying attention…
© 1946, 1947, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Year 100 and Other Tales Deluxe Edition


By Paul Pope, with José Villarrubia, Ted McKeever, James Jean & others (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-5807-8 (HB)

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators in the business, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing which usually resembles a blend of manga and European modern realism.

He was born in 1970 and straddles a lot of seemingly disparate arenas. The multi award-winning raconteur began making waves in 1995 with self-published Sci-Fi caper THB, simultaneously working for Japan’s Kodansha on the serial feature Supertrouble.

Pope is dedicated to innovation and inquiry: taking fresh looks at accepted genres with works such as One-Trick Ripoff, 100%, Escapo, Heavy Liquid, Sin Titulo or his Young Adult OGN franchise Battling Boy. He’s worked on a few DC projects over the years but none quite as high-profile or well-received as his 2006 prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

This collection – available in hardback and digital formats – gathers the entire saga whilst also representing a few other pertinent titbits for your delectation and delight…

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. It’s a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, but from out of the shadows a long-vanished threat to that iron-fisted control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds and technologies of the ultimate surveillance society, a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands…

Eschewing our contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations and origin stories, Pope leaps head-first into the action for this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon, helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated and happily red-handed bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this stripped-down version of the iconic Batman concept taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger & Jerry Robinson. Once more, a special man who – at the end – is only human fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections… especially the police.

For me, Guys with Suits and a Plan have always been scarier than nutters in spandex and it’s clear I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s smug, officious civil servant antagonists callously and continually cut a swathe of destruction through the city and populace they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the projected Caped Crusader and his dedicated band of associates as they clean house in the dirtiest city in a dirty world.

Following that clarion call to liberty are a small selection of graphic gems beginning with Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. Accompanied by a commentary, ‘Berlin Batman’ (originally published in The Batman Chronicles #11) sees Pope and colourist Ted McKeever relate the career of a German Jewish costumed avenger plaguing the ascendant Third Reich in the dark days of 1939.

Winning the 2006 Eisner Award for Best Short Story, ‘Teenage Sidekick’, from Solo #3, sees first Robin Dick Graysonescape a chilling fate and learn a chilling lesson at the hands of both his masked mentor and the Joker, before Batman: Gotham Knights #3 (May 2000) provides a black & white memory as a neophyte Dark Knight ponders the repercussions of his first ever ‘Broken Nose’ and takes a rather petty revenge on the perpetrator…

Also included here are ancillary text pages to supplement the main story, delivered as ‘Batman: Year 100 News Archives’and as plus notes, design sketches and unused artwork

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously madcap story honouring the history and conventions of the primal Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the 1939 prototype did. This is a book for the generations.
© 1998, 2000, 2005, 2006, 2015 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents Metal Men volume 2


By Robert Kanigher, Otto Binder, Mike Sekowsky, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, Gil Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1559-0 (TPB)

The metamorphic Metal Men first appeared in four consecutive issues of National-DC’s prestigious try-out vehicle Showcase. Legendarily the concept and first issue script were created over a weekend by veteran author/editor Robert Kanigher after the intended feature blew its press deadline, then rapidly-but-inspirationally rendered by the iconic art-team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito.

This last-minute filler attracted a large, avid readership’s eager attention and within months of their fourth and final exploit, the gleaming gladiatorial gadgets were stars of their own title.

This iteration of the sterling squad is sadly neglected these days and their earliest adventures are egregiously unavailable in modern collections or digital formats but can be re-enjoyed of discovered in a previous collection and this follow-up mammoth monochrome tome. It collects the solid gold stories from Metal Men #16-35 and the second of their nine guest appearances in Brave and the Bold (#66).

Once upon a time, brilliant young polymath Will Magnus constructed a doomsday-duelling suicide squad of self-regulating, intelligent automatons, governed by astounding microcomputers dubbed “Responsometers”. These miracles of nano-engineering not only simulate – or perhaps originate – thought processes and emotional character for the robots, but also constantly reprogram their basic forms – allowing them to instantaneously change shapes.

Magnus patterned his handmade heroes on pure metals, with regal leading-man Gold commanding a tight knit team of Iron, Lead, Mercury, Platinum and Tin warriors. Thanks to their responsometers, each robot specialised in physical changes based on its elemental properties, but due to some quirk of programming the robots developed personality traits mimicking the metaphorical attributes of their base metal.

This compendium takes the manmade myrmidons through the best and worst of the 1960s “Camp Craze” and solidly into the bizarrely experimental phase that presaged a temporary decline of costumed heroes and rise of mystery and supernatural comics: a fascinating period of social and emotional experimentation that allowed comics to finally start “growing up”…

Metal Men #16 (October/November 1966) opens proceedings as Kanigher, Andru & Esposito pull out all the stops for the spectacularly whacky ‘Robots for Sale!’

Platinum or “Tina” believes herself passionately in love with Magnus and his constant rebuffs regularly drive her crazy. Here, his latest rejection makes her so mad she flees into space. When the Metal Men chase her, everyone ends up doll-sized on a derelict planet where ravenous mechanical termites have almost eradicated native wooden robots living there…

Issue #17 depicts Tina’s worst nightmare as Magnus and his motley metal crew investigate cosmic cobwebs fallen across Earth. The inventor is bizarrely bewitched by a horrifying mechanical Black Widow in ‘I Married a Robot!’, before the team tackle a terrifying technological tyrannosaur in #18’s ‘The Dinosaur Who Stayed for Dinner!’

‘The Man-Horse of Hades!’ features a mythic menace who has waited centuries for his true love to return, and promptly mistakes Tina for his missing “centaurette”, after which the Alloyed Avengers meet Metamorpho, the Element Man in Brave and the Bold #66 (June/July 1966).

‘Wreck the Renegade Robots’ (by Bob Haney & Mike Sekowsky) sees the reluctant heroic freak beg Magnus to remedy his unwelcome elemental condition, just as utterly mad scientist Kurt Borian resurfaces from years of self-imposed obscurity. He’s got his own Metal Men, and is extremely distressed that somebody else has already patented his idea. Tragically, the only way to stop Borian’s rampage involves reversing Metamorpho’s cure…

‘Birthday Cake for a Cannibal Robot!’ offers a second appearance for Kanigher’s craziest – not to say incredibly racist – creation. Egg Fu is a colossal, ovoid Chinese Communist constructed robot programmed to “Destloy Amelica” (I know, I know: deeply unsuitable but tolerated under the “different times” rule, OK?).

The mechanical mastermind had first battled Wonder Woman, but resurfaces here to crush the West’s greatest homemade heroes with a giant automaton of his own, after which ‘The Metal Men vs the Plastic Perils!’ plays it all slightly more seriously in a guest-star-stuffed romp (Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Flash) pitting the team against criminal genius Professor Bravo and his synthetic stalwarts Ethylene, Styrene, Polythene, Silicone and Methacrylate

Soviet scientist Professor Snakelocks then unleashes an unpredictable synthetic life-form against the heroes in #22’s ‘Attack of the Sizzler!’ before launching an invasion of America. Although the canny constructs can handle hordes of mechanical Cossacks, they are completely outgunned when the sparkling synthezoid transforms Magnus into a robot and the Metal Men into flesh and blood humans…

Issue #23 sees the robots restored, but Doc still steel-shod as they face ‘The Rage of the Lizard!’ – another sinister spy attacking the Free World – but before the inevitable end, Magnus too, regains mortal form. Unfortunately, now Tina and Sizzler are rivals for his non-existent affections…

Metal Men #24 pits the expanded team against a monstrous marauding inflatable alien in ‘The Balloon Man Hangs High!’ after which the ‘Return of Chemo…the Chemical Menace!’ sees tragedy strike as Sizzler is destroyed and Doc grievously injured just before the toxic terror attacks. Mercifully, the Shiny Sentinels prove equal to the task even without their mentor-inventor and it’s back to tried-and-true zaniness for #26’s ‘Menace of the Metal Mods!’ wherein mechanical fashion icons go on a robbing rampage. ‘The Startling Origin of the Metal Men!’ rehashes their first mission as a modern Mongol Genghis Khan launches an anti-American assault.

‘You Can’t Trust a Robot!’ finds a fugitive gang-boss taking control of the Metal Men’s spare bodies, resulting in a spectacular “evil-twin” battle between good and bad mechanoids, before it’s back into outer space to battle ‘The Robot Eater of Metalas 5!’ and his resource-hungry masters: a staggeringly spectacular romp marking an end to Kanigher, Andru & Esposito’s connection with the series.

Metal Men #30 (February/March 1968) featured the first of 2 fill-in issues by Otto Binder and Gil Kane – with Esposito hanging on to provide inks – after which a highly radical retooling began.

Following a laboratory accident that leaves Magnus in a coma, ‘Terrors of the Forbidden Dimension!’ finds metal marvels exploring other realms in search of a cure. No sooner do they defeat a host of hazards to fix him than he insults them by building another team! Issue #31’s ‘The Amazing School for Robots!’ introduces Silver, Cobalt, Osmium, Gallium, Zincand Iridium – although she prefers “Iridia”…

It’s all barely manageable until disembodied alien intelligence Darzz the Dictator possesses the newcomers and civil war breaks out…

By1968, superhero comics were in steep and rapid decline. Panicked publishers sought new ways to keep audiences as tastes changed. Back then, the entire industry depended on newsstand sales, so if you weren’t mass-popular, you died.

Editors Jack Miller and George Kashdan tapped veteran Mike Sekowsky to stop the metal fatigue, and he had a radical solution: the same nuts and bolts overhaul he was also helming with Denny O’Neil on the de-powered Diana Prince: Wonder Woman.

The enchantingly eccentric art of Sekowsky was a DC mainstay for decades and his unique take on the Justice League of America had cemented its overwhelming success. He had also scored big with Gold Key’s Man from Uncle and Tower Comics’ T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Fight the Enemy!

Now he was creatively stretching himself with a number of experimental, youth-targeted projects; tapping into the teen zeitgeist with the Easy Rider-inspired drama Jason’s Quest, sci-fi reboot Manhunter 2070, the (at that time) hopelessly moribund Amazon and eventually Supergirl.

Sekowsky began conservatively enough in MM #32 as illustrator, with Binder scripting ‘The Metal Women Blues!’wherein Doc builds counterparts and companions for his valiant crew – with disastrous results – after which the boldly innovative “relevancy” direction kicked in with The New Hunted Metal Men #33 (cover-dated August/September 1968).

Kanigher resumes as scripter with Sekowsky & George Roussos crafting a darkly paranoic tone for ‘Recipe to Kill a Robot!’ wherein the once-celebrated team go on the run from humanity. The problems start when Magnus increases their power-levels exponentially, causing them to constantly endanger the very people they are trying to help. The tension is compounded after their creator is injured: plunged into yet another coma.

Pilloried by an unforgiving public and only stopping briefly to defeat an invasion by voracious giant alien insects, the misunderstood mechanoids flee, finding sanctuary with Doc’s brother David – a high-ranking military spook.

Issue #33’s ‘Death Comes Calling!’ sees them encountering a ghastly extraterrestrial force which murderously animates America’s shop mannequins after Tina rejects its amorous advances. The concomitant carnage and highly visible collateral damage are exacerbated in #35 – the last tale in this rousing tome – which adds to humanity’s collective woes when a vast, love-starved Volcano Man joins the chase in ‘Danger… Doom Dummies!’

Kanigher’s unmatched ability to dream up outlandish visual situations and bizarre emotive twists might have dropped out of vogue, but this simply opened the door for more evocative and viscerally emotive content more in keeping with the series’ now teen-aged audience, and the best was still to come…

It’s long past time we saw those tales – as well as these lost comics classics – again in suitable archival editions and all modern formats: ASAP, please!
© 1965-1969, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman: Brainiac


By Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, Jon Sibal & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-230-1 (TPB)

Since his first appearance in Action Comics #242 (July 1958), robotic alien reaver Brainiac has been a perennial favourite foe of the Man of Steel, and has remained so even through being subsequently “retooled” many times. Brilliant and relentless, the one thing he/it has never been is really scary – until this latest re-imagining from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank.

In post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity the raider was a computerised intellect from planet Colu who inhabited and transformed the body of showbiz mentalist Milton Fine, until it grew beyond physical limits to become a time-travelling ball of malignant computer code, constructing or co-opting ever-more formidable physical forms in its self-appointed mission to eradicate Superman.

However, in this slim but evocative tome – collecting Action Comics #886-870 and Superman: New Krypton Special #1 – the truth is finally revealed… or if you prefer, edited into a sensible scenario combining the best of dozens of previous plot strands.

Long ago, an alien invader attacked Krypton: merciless and relentless robotic berserkers slaughtered hundreds of citizens before physically removing the entire city of Kandor. Decades later, one of those robots lands on Earth only to promptly fall before the Man of Tomorrow’s shattering fists.

This ‘First Contact’ leads to a revelatory conversation with Supergirl – a fortunate survivor of the Kandor Incident, as seen in ‘Hide and Seek’. Now we know every Brainiac Superman has ever faced has only been a pale shadow of the true villain: autonomous automatic probes and programming ghosts of a malevolent entity that has stalked the universe for centuries, stealing representative cities before destroying the redundant worlds they once thrived upon. Most importantly, the real Brainiac has found Earth…

What nobody realises is that the Cosmic Kidnapper has been scouring the cosmos ever since Krypton died. He actually wants to possess every last son and daughter of that long-dead world and neither time nor distance will hinder him…

Superman rockets into space to confront the monster, unaware that the marauder is already en route to Earth, and as the Metropolis Marvel confronts his old foe for the very first time in a titanic, horrific clash, ‘Greetings’ sees Supergirl lead the defence of embattled planet Earth against the monster’s diabolical mechanical marauders.

The war on two fronts continues in ‘Mind Over Matter’, concluding in an overwhelming moment of ‘Triumph and Tragedy’ as Superman defeats Brainiac and frees an entire city of fellow Kryptonians he never knew still existed, only to lose one of the most important people in his life, ending on an uncharacteristically sombre, low key note in ‘Epilogue’.

Geoff Johns was then at the forefront of the creative movement to restore and rationalize DC’s Pre-Crisis mythology, and by combining a modern sensibility with the visual flavour of Ridley Scott’s Alien movies here added a tangible aura of terror to the wide-eyed imagination and wonder of those old and much-loved tales. The visceral, gloriously hyper-realistic art of Gary Franks & John Sibal adds to the unease, and their deft touch with the welcome tension-breaking comedic breaks is a sheer delight.

Available in both print and digital formats, this is a Superman yarn anybody can pick up, irrespective of their familiarity – or lack of – with the character: fast, thrilling, spooky and deeply moving, for all that it’s also the introduction to major event New Krypton – but that’s a tale and review for another time…
© 2008, 2009 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Golden Age Starman Archives volume 1


By Jack Burnley, Gardner Fox, Alfred Bester, Ray Burnley & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-622-4 (HB)

After the staggering success of Superman and Batman, National Comics/DC rapidly launched many new mystery-men in their efforts to capitalise on the phenomenon of superheroes, and – from our decades-distant perspective – it’s only fair to say that by 1941 the editors had only the vaguest inkling of what they were doing.

Since newest creations The 6Sandman, The Spectre and Hourman were each imbued with equal investments of innovation, creativity and exposure, the editorial powers-that-be were rather disappointed that these additions never took off to the same explosive degree.

Publishing partner but separate editorial entity All American Comics had meanwhile generated a string of barnstorming successes like The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and radio sensation Hop Harrigan and would imminently produce the only rival to Superman and Batman’s status when Wonder Woman debuted late in the year.

Of course, AA had the brilliantly “in-tune” creative and editorial prodigy Sheldon Mayer to filter all their ideas through …

Thus, when Starman launched in the April 1941 issue of Adventure Comics (relegating Sandman to a back-up role in the venerable heroic anthology), National/DC trusted in craft and quality rather than some indefinable “pizzazz”. The editors were convinced the startlingly realistic, conventionally dramatic illustration of Hardin “Jack” Burnley would propel their newest concept to the same giddy heights of popularity as the Action Ace and Gotham Guardian.

Indeed, the strip – always magnificently drawn and indisputably one of the most beautiful of the period – was further blessed with mature and compelling scripts by Gardner Fox and Alfred Bester: compulsive and brilliant thrillers and even by today’s standards some one of the very best comics ever produced.

However – according to the artist in his Foreword to this stunning deluxe hardback collection – that was possibly the problem. Subtle, moody, slower-paced stories just didn’t have the sheer exuberance and kinetic energy of the most popular series, which all eschewed craft and discipline for spectacle and all-out action.

Happily, these days with an appreciably older and more discerning audience, Starman’s less-than-stellar career in his own time can be fully seen for the superb example of Fights ‘n’ Tights wonderment it truly is, and – in his anniversary years – cries out for a definitive archival collection… especially since his legacy descendant Stargirl is a big shot TV sensation…

This epic collection reprints the earliest astounding exploits of the Astral Avenger from Adventure Comics #61-76 (spanning April 1941- July 1942), including some of the most iconic covers of the Golden Age, by Burnley and, latterly, wonder-kids Joe Simon & Jack Kirby.

Burnley came up with the Starman concept but, as was often the case, a professional writer was assigned to flesh out and co-create the stories. In this case said scribe was the multi-talented Gardner Fox who wrote most of them. The illustrator also liberally called on the talents of his brother Dupree “Ray” Burnley as art assistant, and sister Betty as letterer to finish the episodes in sublimely cinematic style.

In those simpler times origins were far less important than today, and the moonlit magic here begins with ‘The Amazing Starman’ from #61 as America suddenly suffers a wave of deadly electrical events. Appalled and afraid, FBI chief Woodley Allen summons his latest volunteer operative. Bored socialite Ted Knight promptly abandons his irate date Doris Lee to assume his mystery man persona, flying off to stop the deranged scientist behind all the death and destruction.

Almost as an aside we learn that secret genius Knight had previously discovered a way to collect and redirect the energy of Starlight through an awesome handheld device he calls a “gravity rod” and resolved to do only good with his discoveries…

The intrepid adventurer tracks diabolical Dr. Doog to his mountain fortress and spectacularly decimates the subversive Secret Brotherhood of the Electron.

In #62 the Sidereal Sentinel met another deadly deranged genius who had devised a shrinking ray. It even briefly diminishes Starman before the sky warrior extinguishes ‘The Menace of the Lethal Light’, after which ‘The Adventure of the Earthquake Terror’ (#63) depicts the nation attacked by foreign agent Captain Vurm, using enslaved South American tribesmen to administer his grotesque ground-shock engines. He too falls before the unstoppable cosmic power of harnessed starlight. America was still neutral at this time, but the writing was on the wall and increasingly villains sported monocles and Germanic accents…

Adventure Comics #64 pits the Astral All-Star against a sinister mesmerist who makes men slaves in ‘The Mystery of the Men with Staring Eyes’, after which – behind a stunning proto-patriotic cover – Starman solves ‘The Mystery of the Undersea Terror’, wherein the ship-sinking League of the Octopus proves another deadly outlet for the greedy genius of The Light…

‘The Case of the Camera Curse’ in #66 layered a dose of supernatural horror into the high-tech mix as Starman tackles a crazed photographer employing a voodoo lens to enslave and destroy his subjects, before #67’s ‘The Menace of the Invisible Raiders’ introduced the Astral Avenger’s greatest foe. The Mist devised a way to make men and machines imperceptible and would have conquered America with his unseen air force had not the Starry Knight stopped him…

Alfred Bester provides a searing patriotic yarn for #68 as ‘The Blaze of Doom’ sees Starman quenching a forest fire and uncovering a lumberjack gang intent on holding America’s Defence effort to ransom, after which Fox was back for #69’s ‘The Adventure of the Singapore Stranglers’ in which the heavenly hero stamps out a sinister cult. In actuality, the killers were sadistic saboteurs of a certain aggressive Asiatic Empire. American involvement in WWII was mere months away…

The martial tone continued in ‘The Adventure of the Ring of Hijackers’ as Starman battles Baron X, whose deadly minions are wrecking American trains carrying munitions and supplies to embattled British convoy vessels, although a welcome change of pace came in #71 when ‘The Invaders from the Future’ strike. Brigands from Tomorrow are bad enough, but when Starman discovers one of his old enemies had recruited them, all bets are off…

In #72, an Arabian curse seems the reason explorers are dying of fright, but the ‘Case of the ‘Magic Bloodstone’ proves to have a far more prosaic – if no less sinister – cause…

With Adventure Comics #73, Starman surrendered the cover-spot, as dynamic duo Simon & Kirby took over ailing strips Paul Kirk, Manhunter and Sandman. However, ‘The Case of the Murders in Outer Space’ proved the Knight Errant was not lacking in imagination or dynamic quality, as he matches wits with a brilliant mastermind murdering heirs to a Californian fortune by an unfathomable method before disposing of the bodies in an utterly unique manner…

Sinister science again reigned in #74 as ‘The Case of the Monstrous Animal-Men’ finds the Starlight Centurion tragically battling ghastly pawns of a maniac who turns men into beasts, whilst #75’s ‘The Case of the Luckless Liars’ details how Ted Knight’s initiation into a millionaires’ fibbing society leads to Starman becoming a hypnotised terror tool of deadly killer The Veil

This initial foray into darkness ends with a rollicking action riot in ‘The Case of the Sinister Sun’ wherein cheap thugs of the Moroni Gang upgrade their act with deadly gadgets: patterning themselves after the solar system in a blazing crime blitz until Starman eclipses them all…

Enthralling, engaging and fantastically inviting, these Golden Age adventures are a lost high-point of the era – even if readers of the time didn’t realise it – and offer astonishing thrills and amazing chills for today’s sophisticated readership. Starman’s exploits are some of the best but most neglected thrillers of those halcyon days, but modern tastes will find them are far more in tune with contemporary mores. This book is a truly terrific treat for fans of mad science, mystery, murder and stylish intrigue…
© 1941, 1942, 2000 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.